Poor economy makes Tunisians pessimistic

Poor economy & continuing inflation

market

Tunisia’s economic crisis is almost 3 years after the revolution still continuing, if not worsening. The inflation rate was according to statistics 6.2% last July, whereas the estimation is that the average annual rate of 2013 will be somewhere between 5.5 and 6%. It doesnt take alot to imagine what consequences this has for the average Tunisian. According to government statistics and recent news articles especially food and rent prices have increased, in September this year by 7.7%. One should take into consideration that last year it was the same, if not worse. According to analysists next year will also be for sure troubling for Tunisians with at least the same rates.

Practical examples of the consequences are numerous. Ask any Tunisian about prices that have increased compared to two or three years ago and they will complain about price increases in the most basic needs such as rent, vegetables, milk or petrol. A Tunisian going to the local market nowadays will have to pay atleast twice as much for a kilo of green peppers (inevitable for many Tunisian dishes) compared to just two years ago. Translated to European standards this would mean a kilo of green peppers would increase in just two years from €1,5 to become €3.

Despite that Tunisia’s economy is also struggling with a big external deficit, made worse by a big fall in tourism revenues since the uprising in January 2011 that led to the fall of former president Ben Ali’s regime. The continuing instability and national security problems are a huge barrier to getting the economy and tourist industry back on track, not to mention attracting foreign investments. According to statements by officials the 2014 Financial Draft Law – recently announced – that calls for raising taxes and cutting subsidies to reduce the country’s budget deficit has led to wide criticism. Earlier this year the government agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) upon a loan of 1.75 billion dollar. Conditions of the loan being that the government will gradually cut subsidies on energy, electricty, petrol, milk, sugar, bread etc.

Decreasing middle class

middle class

For decades it was according to analysts the Tunisian middle class that gave the country a certain degree of stability. In early 2011 approximately 89% of the Tunisians belonged to the middle class, putting the country ahead of all African countries. However the last five to eight years before the 2011 revolution the middle class already started to suffer and inequality increased. Especially along regional lines. Since the revolution however the middle class has shrunk to approximately 69%. Most of them became part of the increasing lower middle class, which has grown significantly and is expected to continue to due to the poor economic state of the country and increasing inequality. The step from the lower middle class to below poverty line is a small one. While reading this one should imagine that an “above average” salary in Tunisia is 650 dinars a month (€290). Whereas in many cases people earn a salary of 400 to 550 dinars, even less than just mentioned.

Although the coastal cities have experienced immense development throughout the last decades, rural Western and Southern Tunisia have consistently been neglected by the government. Despite the fact that this divide is typical for many developing countries it is not a surprise that the first demonstrations in the beginning of the revolution started in impoverished southern Tunisian cities, soon spreading to the West. Impoverished cities such as Sidi Bouzid (Southern Tunisia and birth place of the revolution) or Kassrine (West Tunisia) played an important role in the uprising against the 23-year rule of the former president.

Due to the tight economic grip the ruling Ben Ali-Trabelsi family had on the country’s economy and its private sector, often by blackmailing businesses that were making a good profit, it was itself the cause of not being able to keep up in providing new jobs to many young well-educated Tunisians. There is a reason wikileaks cables described the former ruling family as “quasi-mafia” and “an oblique mention of The Family is enough to indicate which family you mean”. Moreover the former regime has throughout its rule never been able – or did not try – to develop the impoverished south or west. Meaning that even in times of sometimes strong and exemplary economic growth the money was often “trickling down” to the same persons and always to the same regions; coastal Tunisia and especially Greater Tunis area including Bizerte, the touristic Gulf from Hammamet to Sousse and Mahdia, as well as the port city of Sfax.

The way forward

private sector

As Tunisia removes away from its former regime it is of crucial importance that its private sector is stimulated to grow. Because of the tight grip of the former regime small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) have never had the chance to find their way in Tunisia. Government representatives, civil society and especially the private sector have been active in discussing together idea’s for policy making on how to stimulate the private sector. However, much more is needed from policy makers to ensure creating a climate where the competitive private sector and SMB’s become the driving force in creating jobs and strengthening Tunisia’s economy.

Apart from that applying the law in cases of fraud, tax evation or corruption should be a priority of any future government. A thriving private sector and foreign investors will take a look at Tunisia and the guarantees they have that the rule of law is equally applied to all businesses. In some cases restrictions on foreign investment for example should be reviewed. One example is the fact that in many sectors such as trading entry is reserved for enterprises with Tunisians holding majority interests. Meaning the foreign investor will have to find a Tunisian that owns at least 51% of the company….which will obviously put the investor of. For several other services activities foreign investment requires prior agreement from Tunisia’s Investment Commission if foreign ownership exceeds 50 percent.

Apart from economic policy making there is still the fact that the poor economic state of Tunisia is directly related to the instability that is caused national security problems such as terrorism or the political crisis that has swept the country for months now. All of this makes ordinary citizens wonder what they have actually gained from the revolution so far. With increasing inflation and prices, a middle class that continues to suffer and a never ending political crisis many Tunisians are very pessimistic about the future.

Torture in post revolution Tunisia

President of the Association Against Torture Nasraoui holds photographs during an interview in Tunis

Cases of torture

After the revolution torture is still a widespread phenomenon in Tunisia, as reported by many Tunisian human rights activists and organizations. There is however one big difference, civil society organizations and media are able to report cases of torture freely in pressuring government institutions to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Last year there was a public outcry by civil society and women right’s activists when it turned out three police offers had raped a young woman. After the police asked the woman and her fiancée for their identity cards while they were sitting in their car they eventually separated the two and took her to their (police) car where two of the officers raped her. The third police officer tried to bribe her fiancée by demanding money from him, and according to the fiancée the officer went with him to a bank to get money from the cash dispenser. The case became politically sensitive when the officer’s lawyer accused the girl of “indecency”, which is still punishable under current law. Eventually the court case was postponed and the accused police officers are still in custody awaiting the final verdict. The girl wrote later a book about that awful evening she was raped and shared her story on television programs as well.

Walid Denguir left last week Friday afternoon his home to buy some small things. After soon having been arrested by the police a few hours later his mother was called to tell her that her son died. At the hospital she identified his badly beaten body. The ministry admitted the excessive use of force but said it was still waiting for the results of the autopsy to declare the final cause of his death. Walid’s death caused an outctry on social media after pictures of his dead body were shared among viewers.

After his funeral an angry crowd shouted slogans against the government and declaring to “take revenge for what has been done to Walid”.

Not a new phenomenon

Just to be clear, torture is not a new phenomenon that has struck Tunisia’s since the revolution. Ben Ali’s regime was well known for its torture. Back at that time the security forces could do anything they want without having to take any responsibility. It was a method that made Tunisians fear the security forces, better known as the “right hand of Ben Ali” in keeping the people “in check”. Tunisian media was strictly controlled and you would therefore never hear anything about cases of torture.

After the revolution the government has expressed its intention to instill checks and balances in the newly written constitution that criminalize torture. Apart from that it also tried to reform the security apparatus, although accountability for charges committed under the previous regime (or during the revolution) has not been settled (yet). Nevertheless a reshuffle within the security forces did take place after the revolution. Moreover the current government also set aside a separate ministry tasked with human rights and transitional justice. Despite those actions that the government has taken to reform and tackle the widespread use of torture by police and security forces it is still a rampant issue that needs to be further addressed.

Authority for the Prevention of Torture

Tunisia’s constituent assembly adopted last month a law to create a national authority for the prevention of torture and other inhuman treatment. 16 elected experts will have the authority to visit any site where people are reported to be deprived of their liberty in order to document the torture or ill-treatment. Moreover based on its documentation it will issue recommendations of measures that need to be taken to eradicate torture and inhuman treatment.

What is really decisive in taking a tough stance against torture is whether the authority is made up of independent people and its recommendations are actually used in new policy making to prevent torture. This means there should be a strong political willingness to take further action on preventing torture from taking place. Eventually accountability is the only decisive factor in eradicating torture in Tunisia.

Terrorist attack in Sousse & Jihadi-salafism

sousse explosion

Wednesday morning Tunisia was in shock after a terrorist tried to carry out a suicide attack in hotel Riadh Palms in Sousse. Eventually the hotel’s security did not allow him to enter the resort and he blew himself up at the beach – next to the boulevard – nearby (see picture above). The same morning there was another attempt by a young Tunisian to blow himself up at former president’s Habib Bourguiba’s mausoleum in Monastir, which he was not able to after some people noticed his strange behaviour and were luckily able to overpower him. Those attacks happened only two weeks after terrorist gunmen killed six members of the Tunisian security forces in the southern city of Sidi Bouzid.

A profile of the terrorists

Today radio ShemsFM had an interview with the mother of the terrorist that tried to blow himself up at Bourguiba’s mausoleum in Monastir. Her son is only 20 years old and from Zaghouan (where the family lives), a city approximately 100 km from the capital Tunis. He is from a middle class family as his mother explained he did not have a lot of friends in his own city since becoming religious. She explained he actually disappeared a couple of months ago to call his parents from Benghazi, telling them he left to fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Before he left – without informing his parents – he had regularly arguments with his parents that tried to convince him not to go. His mother mentioned that he became gradually “a salafist” after spending many time on the internet. Initially she did not have a lot of problems with him becoming religious, until the moment he told her that he wanted to go to Syria.

The profile is not an exception; most terrorists in Tunisia are between 20 and 38 years old. A common misconception is that it are only “the poor” that are easy to manipulate in becoming extremists ready to use violence. Although it is a fact that poor economic perspectives might contribute to extremists gaining support, it is not the sole reason.

Jihadi-salafism & its visibility after the revolution

ansar sharia

The young Tunisian that tried to blow himself up at Bourguiba’s mausoleum in Sousse and whose mother was interviewed by ShemsFM belongs to a jihadi branche within salafism: jihadi-salafism. Salafism is a literalist branch within Sunni Islam that claims to takes it religious interpretation “from the first pious forefathers”. It is sometimes also referred to as “Protestant Islam”, meaning it started as a religious movement in the 18th century that “wanted to go back to the original Islam, free of idolatry, innovations and impure philosophies”. Jihadi-salafism however, a subbranch of salafism, believes that anyone that does not rule with (their variant of) sharia law becomes an unbeliever (non-muslim) and should therefore be fought. Not only the politicians (or governments) that play an important role in the law-making process, but also the state and its institutions are perceived as the “helpers of the Taghout”. Taghout is an Arabic term they specifically use to denounce “everything that is worshipped besides Allah”. One might think: but what does the government or state institutions have to do with worshipping something besides Allah? According to their beliefs anyone or anything (government) that takes the “place of Allah” becomes a “Taghout”. Accordingly, the government that does not rule with (their interpretation of) sharia has taken the place of Allah, because “only Allah has the right to be the lawgiver, not human beings”. And anyone who helps “the taghout” such as security forces, the Tunisian army or even state officials are also “disbelievers that should be fought”. This ideology is not new as some people might think; the closest example in proximity is neighboring Algeria. Algeria has experienced in the 90’s many terrorist attacks against state institutions, with extremist groups having exactly the same line of reasoning.

After the revolution the Tunisian state has been significantly weakened. From a former police state that tracked every movement it considered to be suspicious and needed to silence political opposition, to a weak state that has experienced a revolution and is still in the transitional phase of becoming a democracy. Where the old Tunisian state was known to have an excellent secret service apparatus, the new state and its government lacks having a good secret service. Although many accuse the current government itself of having turned a blind eye to extremists, lacking professionalism and experience and (in some cases) consider them (for different reasons) to be part of the problem.

Jihadi-salafism has grown significantly after the revolution. Newfound freedoms such as the freedom of association, freedom of expression and religion has given these groups the chance to spread their message and openly proclaim their objectives. Some of them returned to Tunisia after having lived for years abroad, others used to be imprisoned by the previous regime and have been released. It was only a matter of time that things would get out of hand, extremist language such as death threats or takfir (declaring fellow Muslims to have become disbelievers) have been regularly reported, as well as increasing cases where violence was used to enforce their idea’s upon others. Ansar Sharia is an important jihadi-salafi organization in Tunisia that is recently deemed a terrorist organization. Although the top of the organization itself did not (yet) call explicitly and in public upon their followers to use violence, they did openly create a climate of hatred against the state, its security forces and army by calling them regularly “Taghout”. Some of its members have been linked to the planned attack on the American embassy in Tunis last year, and assassination of socialist politican Chokri Belaid last February.

Who is responsible?

mufti vs bourguiba                                                  The Mufti and former president Habib Bourguiba

For Tunisians the phenomenon of salafism and also it’s violent branch (jihadi-salafism) is new. Jihadi-salafism propagates “jihad” against whoever they consider to have become a disbeliever. Both branches however are in contradiction to Tunisian’s commonly held understanding of Islam; formed and shaped by the centuries old Islamic Zitouna University in Tunis and known for its moderation.

The current Mufti of Tunisia Hamda Said caused controversy when he said in a radio interview “that first president of the Tunisian Republic Habib Bourguiba is the primary responsible for terrorism that is gripping the country”. Arguing that having closed the famous Zitouna University after Tunisia’s independence has “turned eager youngsters that want to study Islam in the hands of people that are willing to teach them their extremist version of Islam”. After former president Ben Ali took power from Bourguiba in the late 80’s he increased the policy of restricting religious education and further oppressed any religious visibility such as having a beard for men or even wearing a headscarf (hijab) for women. The Mufti’s remarks were widely criticized and led to discussions about the role Bourguiba played in restricting the once prestigious Zitouna University. Contrary to popular opinion salafism is not new in Tunisia, neither is its violent branch jihadi-salafism. With the coming into existence of satellite television, religious tv channels and internet it has throughout the years gained visibility in the whole of North-Africa.

Although a lot of religious visibility was strongly oppressed by the former regime and salafists (as well as any type of Islamist) were by default imprisoned, in 2009 – before the revolution – security forces clashed with an armed group of terrorists hiding in the mountains. After the revolution many “prisoners of conscience” were released, among them salafists who have merely been imprisoned under the former regime for being salafist. Others came back to Tunisia after having lived abroad for years, among them jihadi-salafist and former Afghan war veteran Abou Iyadh. Who would soon create the jihadi-salafist organization Ansar Sharia, that is now designated a terrorist organization by the government. Many mosques that used to be under surveillance of the Ministry of Religious Affairs were not after the revolution. In some well-known cases this has led to mosques being taken over by extremists or preaching hatred and violence against other Tunisians or the state itself. Although the government has slowly gained many mosques back under its surveillance, there are still mosques left where it does not exercise any control over.

Whereas the Mufti of Tunisia blamed recently former president Bourguiba for the terrorism that has taken grip of Tunisia, others such as many of the opposition blame (partly) Ennahda and its government. They argue that Ennahda has turned a blind eye to extremists for way too long and in (some) cases some of its members contributed to the polarization between Islamists and secularists. Videos such as Ennahda president Ghannoushi talking to salafists in private while explaining them “they have to be patient because secularists control the most important places in Tunisian society” was for them a proof of Ennahda’s “double speak”. Although Ennahda has categorically denounced violence, it was only after the attack on the American embassy in Tunis last year (more than a year after the revolution) that its government became more active in taking stronger measures against extremists and their violence.

Some politicians and prominent figures of civil society have called upon a national dialogue and covenant against terrorism, where all parts of Tunisian society (including salafists and jihadi-salafists) come to a common understanding on terrorism and how to avoid it from spreading in Tunisian society. So far however this has not yet taken place, although slowly more politicians seem to support the initiative now. Despite the fact that there seems to be zero sympathy among mainstream Tunisian society for acts of violence carried out by extremists, there are serious intelligence reports that different extremist groups in North-Africa are trying to settle down in countries such as Libya or Tunisia. 

Roadmap to solve the crisis

Tunisia’s political parties have earlier on agreed on a roadmap to solve the country’s crisis. The national dialogue is led by the Labour Union and its secretary-general Houcine Abbassi. All parties involved started Friday 25 October with the “National Dialogue” and first step to select an “independent national figure” that will lead the to-be-formed new government. Four names have been going around in Tunisia’s media, and all parties involved should appoint the new prime minister by the end of this week.

The second step is to agree on the new election law, for which all parties involved have one week to do so according to the roadmap. Political analysts in Tunisia expect that this will the most difficult task considering the fact that each party is calculating its chances for winning next’s elections and where in Tunisia they – most probably – will find most of their votes. Depending on that they favour a certain type of election law. It is my estimation that one week might be a bit too short on time and I would not be surprised if this phase will be delayed a bit. Moreover the newly chosen head of government will present his nominees for his new government.

The third step is basically the current government fulfilling its promise that it will resign after having agreed on a new government, its prime minister as well as the new election law. The constituent assembly approves the newly formed government and will also set a date for new elections. Which will probably be somewhere between July and October 2014.

Last but not least the assembly accepts and finalizes the newly written constitution. Although there were some opposition parties that wanted the whole process of writing the constitution to be done again, it seems that there is already an agreement that this will not the case. On the condition that all previous steps of the roadmap are agreed on by all parties involved.

Below a very clear infographic that has been made by the English language newssite Tunisia-live.com:

progress

Tunisian rap: between freedom of expression and imprisonment

Pre-revolution

Prior to the revolution well-known Tunisian rappers shunned “taboo topics” such as politics, criticizing Ben Ali’s regime or expressing dissatisfaction with government institutions. Most of the songs were about love, break ups and societal issues that were not related to politics. The rap songs that were “approved” by the former regime were shown on the official state media such as television and/or radio stations. Nevertheless, already back then there were some rappers who did actually rap about topics that could and would get them into trouble with the Tunisian authorities.

Most famous is probably Ferid el Extranjero (Farid the Foreigner), a Tunisian rapper that has been living in Spain for quite some years and who released back in 2005 “the people are isolated” (l’abed fi tarkina). A rap song in which he openly and in Tunisian dialect (and sometimes foul language) criticized Ben Ali’s regime of being oppressive, injust and full of corruption. The video of his rap song speaks for itself, with many images of Ben Ali’s secret police and poor Tunisians living “a shitty life in poverty and misery whereas they are not allowed to say anything” (as he mentions in his song). After the revolution Farid mentioned in a tv-show that he gave his song to a friend, and once he was back in Spain (after a holiday in Tunisia) he told him to release it on the internet. Soon his parents and family were harrassed by the secret police in trying to persuade him to go back to his country so that the secret services could get their hand on him. Which he did not.

Although Farid’s rap song was not spread by the official (highly restricted) Tunisian media, it did become popular through the internet among a lot of young Tunisians. Some of them even took the risk of downloading the song unto their mobile phone and listen to it in secret.

Rap & the revolution

elgeneral                                                      Rapper “El General”                                            

After approximately three weeks of demonstrations across Tunisia rapper El General released a song in which he turned openly to former president Ben Ali, voiced his frustration at his oppressive rule, and rapped why people were out on the streets.

The song, “mister President”, became well-known among young Tunisians because many felt he was speaking for all of the Tunisian people in their growing dissatisfaction during Ben Ali’s 23-year rule. Soon after his song was released the rapper was arrested by the secret services and for days his family didnt know anything about his whereabouts. Soon after however, Ben Ali would fled the country and things in Tunisia were turned upside down; the revolution had led to the fall of the regime. El General became well-known and was invited in many TV program’s and news channels to share his story and why he released his rap song.

Rap after the revolution: disillusion & imprisonment

Weld-EL-15-e1364173974445                                                  Weld el 15 in his clip “The police are dogs”  

After the revolution the Tunisian rap scene has become highly involved in politics. Whereas before the revolution it was a taboo to be left aside, after the revolution each rapper shared his ideas, dreams and dissatisfaction with current politicians through one of his songs. From criticizing the previous (post-revolution) interim-government, to criticizing religious extremists in another song or “Arab backwardness”, as Guito N did. To arguing that “nothing has changed” as Hamzaoui did, or advocating the return of the Islamic Caliphate as rapper Psyco M often mentions in one of his songs. From being disillusioned by what the revolution has failed to improve (and possible even made worse), to calling the revolution a lie and a divided Tunisian people that is left alone in difficult times. From an outcry to politicians that they “will be hold accountable for what they fail to achieve”, to openly calling the police “dogs”. As rapper “Weld el 15” did.

However, this seemed to be a bridge too far. Weld el 15 was soon arrested for his rap song on charges of “insulting state institutions and “conspiracy to commit violence”. Insulting state institutions such as the police is a crime according to (contemporary) Tunisian law. Initially he was sentenced to two years in prison for “threatening and insulting police”. After a public outcry and sympathizers of Weld el 15 clashing with police outside the court house it was eventually reduced on appeal to a six-month suspended term. Nevertheless the case led to a scandal at the time, with members of the opposition and human rights groups calling it an attack on freedom of speech.

The case of Weld el 15 shows that freedom of expression is in some cases still limited, although civil society seems to be active in avoiding that freedom of expression might be censured again. Although the government would argue that is not necessarily the case regarding Weld el 15 because he “conspired to commit violence” in his rap song. Nevertheless, the law on criminalizing “insulting government institutions” can be interpreted in such a way that freedom of expression become a hollow phrase. Although the current Tunisian law has been inherited from the former Ben Ali regime it remains to be seen whether the new (almost-to-be-finished) constitution will not contain the same limitation on freedom of expression. There seems to be some support for the law to make sure the police force stays a “respected institution”. The force itself has stated it will become active in trying to preserve the law in the new constitution, although it is not clear what the bigger Tunisian’s parties stance is on preserving the law in the new constitution.

Update of last week’s events

Affaire-Nessma-Tv

Last week started with Ennahda president Rashed al-Ghannoushi being interviewed Sunday evening (25th of August) on Nessma TV. It is important to understand that since the revolution there has been tension between Nessma TV and politicians of Ennahda. The latter accusing the first of “lacking neutrality” for example.  I have written about that in a previous post.

Nessma TV is one of the most popular Tunisian TV channels – if not the most – and is considered to be “leftist/oppositionist” by pro-government supporters. It was the first time that Ghannoushi agreed to be interviewed (for over an hour) by Nessma TV. Which led to many speculations, why Nessma TV? And why now? An explanation that could be close to the truth is that Ennahda tried to reach out to Tunisians that sympathize with the opposition (and this voice can often be heard on Nessma TV). Others mentioned that a week before the interview Ghannoushi met (biggest oppositionist leader) al-Sebsi from Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes) in Paris, which was partly initiated by Nessma TV owner Karaoui who is considered to be close to politicians of Call of Tunisia.

Ennahda and the Egyptian Muslim Broterhood, what lessons to take?

ghannoushi nessma tv                                             Rashed al-Ghannoushi on Nessma TV.

Ghannoushi, leader of the ruling Nahda-party, mentioned in the interview the following things that are relevant to the current crisis:

–          The government should be held to account for the success or failure in the country’s transition to a democracy.

–          Failure of the government is a game-play of the opposition because Tunisia is currently in a transition phase. National security or economy should not be compared to European countries.

–          Resignation of the government will delay everything whereas now it all should be done to finish the current period as soon as possible and have elections.

–          Ennahda accepts the resignation of the government once elections (and an election law) have been prepared and the new constitution is finished.

–          Ennahda considers the Labour union’s initiative (to solve the crisis and come to a solution) to be the right place where negotiations take place.

–          Ennahda considers “having won the elections by 51%” not enough to govern alone (referring to Egypt and the perceived mistake of the Muslim Brotherhood). Governing should be done through national consensus, as was done when the current Troika-government was formed.

–          Ennahda accepted to deal and negotiate with (main oppositionist party) Call of Tunisia, although they were not yet formed at previous elections.

–          Ghannoushi confirmed that among Nahda-members and supporters there are some fears that in a future scenario, when they lose power to the opposition, the same could happen to them as happened to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; imprisoned again and forbidden to practice politics.

–          The current crisis in Tunisia and tension should be solved as soon as possible, otherwise Tunisia might fall victim to the Egyptian scenario: civil war, bloodshed and failure to become a democracy.

–          To all Tunisians; Tunisia has a historic opportunity to succeed in its transition to a democracy and be the first Arab democracy. Nevertheless there are also (some) people aiming to create chaos and unrest in the country.

–          Because there is among political parties and politicians a huge lack of trust the only solution is to sit together and talk.

–          The biggest parties in Tunisia, Ennahda and Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes), have met in Paris last week and made a start in normalizing their relationship.

–          Ennahda dropped their insistence to pass a law in parliament that should ban anyone who has served previously as a minister or official for the Ben Ali regime.

–          Any threat to national security is a red line.

–          The state is not responsible to interfere in someone’s private life; it is responsible for upholding the law, safeguarding security and creating jobs.

There is a big possibility that after last week’s meeting in Paris Ghannoushi and al-Sebsi agreed to both address Tunisians through an interview on Nessma TV and try to cool things down. Ghannoushi tried to take doubts away by mentioning explicitly that the Egyptian scenario should be avoided at all costs. Indirectly he mentioned that “Ennahda differs from the Muslim Brotherhood” and gave several arguments for that, one of them being that Nahda (in contrast to their Egyptian brethren) does understand that winning elections does not mean you’re relieved from trying to govern by (national) consensus. Moreover he also tried to reassure that Ennahda is not a threat to Tunisians who fear that they might want to interfere in their private lives. Even more important is the decision to drop their insistence for “the-perfection of-the-revolution”-law to be passed in parliament. This to-be-formed-law has been controversial from the beginning. It was obvious that (the biggest oppositionist party) Call of Tunisia would become victim of it due to the fact that some of their politicians have served under Ben Ali and would then be forbidden to practice politics for a certain period. Ennahda dropping the initiative to pass that law in parliament is by some of its supporters to be considered as disappointing, after Nahda has been pushing the initiative for it for months. One should understand the outcry this decision might have caused among Ennahda’s supporters by the numerous examples of Nahda politicians (and some of its supporters) who have been imprisoned and tortured by the Ben Ali regime, in which some of Call of Tunisia politicians have served at that time as ministers or their (financial) donors – business men – have praised and supported Ben Ali abundantly. Nevertheless the proposed law, that has now been dropped, also had a political aim: making an end to the increasing political influence of Call of Tunisia. It is therefore a recognition in itself of the increasing political importance of Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes) that Ennahda-president Ghannoushi travelled to meet its leader in Paris.

The opposition’s response

The opposition was quite fast to announce that they do not accept Ennahda’s insistence on not dissolving the government before negotiations start in the Labour union’s national initiative. Almost all opposition parties, and especially the ones that have been most anti-government, agreed to insist on their demand for the government to be dissolved before any initiatives are taken. Arguing that their is such as lack of trust that it is useless to impossible to negotiate before the government has been dissolved.

Nevertheless there have also been differences of opinion among the most vocal anti-government parties. Call of Tunisia, the biggest opposition party led by al-Sebsi, does not agree with the demand of the Popular Front (socialist/marxist) that all government appointed head of institutions, governors and administrators should be removed. Al-Sebsi, who met Ennahda-president Rashed al-Ghannoushi two weeks ago in paris, mentioned in an interview this week with Nessma TV that he disagrees with that specific demand of the Popular Front. Arguing that the state and its institutions have to continue working and removing governors would be cause problems. Al-Sebsi did insist in the interview on the government to be dissolved before any negotiations take place.

Ansar al-Sharia branded a terrorist organization

abou iyaadh                                               Right: Abou Iyaadh, founder of Ansar al-Sharia

On Thursday, 29 August, the Ministry of Interior accused several Ansar al-Sharia members of involvement in the assassination of two politicians (Chokri Belaid and Mohamed al-Brahmi) and of violence near Chaambi Mountain in Western Tunisia, including the killing of eight soldiers in an ambush last July. In a press conference on Wednesday by the Minister of Interior confessions and recordings were shown of al-Qaida members of the Islamic Magreb and the Tunisian Ansar al-Sharia branch to prove that there is a relationship between the two groups. During the conference tapped Skype conversations were shown in which a Tunisian and a non-Tunisian Arab are discussion terrorist attacks on Tunisian soils. The Interior Ministry made clear there was a list of more politicians that should be assassinated to turn the country into chaos, and there was also a plan to get Libyan jihadis into Tunisia in a plot to carry out multiple attacks “the country has never witnessed in its history”. It is most probably because of the plan to get Libyan jihadis into Tunisia to help carry out an attack on Tunisian soil that president Marzouki announced yesterday immediate security measures; some zones along the Libyan and Algerian border will be “security zones”.

Ansar al-Sharia is a salafist-jihadi group that has earlier on also been linked to the attack last year on the American embassy in Tunis. Its founder Abou Iyaadh (see picture above), who fought at the side of many other jihadists in the Afghan war against the former Soviet Union, has been wanted by the Tunisian authorities since the attack on the American embassy last year. His exact whereabouts are unknown, although it is assumed he is still in Tunisia. Ansar al-Sharia has this week officially been designated a terrorist organization because some of its members links to al-Qaida. After having been branded a terrorist organization the government has shutdown their websites, facebook pages and arrested more of its members and religious leaders in several security operations across the country.

Ennahda accepts Union’s initiative

After Ennahda president Rashed al-Ghannoushi met the Union’s (UGTT) secretary-general several times to discuss the UGTT-led initiative to resolve the crisis, it agreed to participate in the national dialogue. The dialogue is meant to include all political parties and come to an agreement on how to solve the current crisis.

The UGTT mentioned yesterday on their facebook that Ennahda agreed to their inititiave. Ennahda president Rashed al-Ghannoushi also released a press release stating Ennahda agreed to participate in the initiative led by the UGTT.TUNISIA-POLITIQUE-UNREST                                            Left Ennahda president Ghannoushi, right UGTT secretary-general Abbassi

On (Tunisian) Hannibal TV the latest news was discussed last night by a panel composed of politicians from both the opposition and government on how to interpret the latest news. Opposition politicians interpreted it as “Ennahda also agreeing with the Union’s stance that the current government will have to be replaced by a national unity government made up of independent candidates”. Nevertheless, the pro-government politician made clear that that is not what Ghannoushi said and therefore mere conjunction, he pointed out that Ennahda agrees to the initiative “for all parties to sit together and try to come to an agreement on how to solve the crisis”. Although an earlier statement of a member of the UGTT did actually state that Ennahda “agreed to a technocratic government”, Ennahda’s statement itself mentions that it will participate in the national dialogue “as a starting point for dialogue and the current government would remain until an agreement was reached”. Ennahda is known to demand the Prime-Minister to stay the same, meaning Ali Laareyedh (Ennahda) will continue his work, respecting the “ballot box” and “legitimacy of the government”.

Ennahda agreed to participate, and the opposition?Rahil-Tunisia-300x150

Rahil-campaign (leave) by the Popular Front, starting Saturday with a demonstration in front of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA).

Ennahda won previous constituent essambly elections with approximately 37% of the votes and is leading the current government coalition. It is not hard to understand the importance of the latest news that it will participate in the UGTT’s-led initiative considering the fact it is the country’s leading political party at the moment. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen which opposition parties will also agree to participate. Many of them have demanded that the current government and parliament should first be dissolved before entering into any talks to solve the country’s crisis. Among the parties that demanded this was Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes) and the Popular Front (leftist/socialist alliance), which also started a “Rahil-campaign” (leave) to demand apart from the government’s and parliament’s dissolution also the replacement of governors and public officials appointed by the current government. Arguing their appointments reflect “political favoritism”. It remains to be seen whether – previously mentioned – opposition parties decide to participate in the dialogue or continue insisting that the current government should be dissolved first. Although both opposition parties are supposed to be in an (temporary) alliance in their demand for the government and parliament to be dissolved it seems rather fragile. Call of Tunisia president al-Sebsi has met Ennahda-president Ghannoushi last week in France, which has led to increasing fears among Popular Front politicians that Call of Tunisia might strike a deal with Ennahda, which is tantamount to leaving their temporary alliance with the Popular Front. Although al-Sebsi has reiterated he is committed to the demands of the alliance fears among Popular Front members have not be taken away. It is important to understand that this alliance is merely a political strategy. The Popular Front is strongly opposed to former regime remnants whereas Call of Tunisia is known to have some well-known former regime ministers and supporters among its ranks.

Just a small reminder of events that happened last week, before Ennahda agreed yesterday to participate in the national dialogue:

– UGTT has talked to all political parties about their demands and the national dialogue to come to a common understanding on how to solve the current crisis. The topics at stake are two-fold; 1) what to do with the current government, 2) what to do with the constituent assembly tasked with writing a new constitution, which has almost been completed

– Ennahda insisted from the beginning that national dialogue should be started without any preconditions, whereas some opposition parties insisted for the government (and parliament) to be dissolved before starting any national dialogue

– UGTT’s official position is that the government should be replaced by an independent one, composed of independent ministers who will prepare – and themselves not be electable in – next’s elections

– UGTT has stated that some demands of the Popular Front (leftist/socialist alliance) are “a burden to come to a common agreement in solving the crisis”. The Popular Front demands apart from dissolving the government and constituent assembly also that mayor’s appointed by the current government have to be replaced for example

– UGTT’s secretary general Abbassi has met Ennahda’s president Ghannoushi three times before Ennnahda agreed to take part in the national dialogue

– Ennahda enters the national dialogue with it’s current stance that any future government should be headed by its current Prime-Minister (Ali Laareyedh, Ennahda) to respect the ballot box and government’s legitimacy

– Ennahda-president Rashed al-Ghannoushi met – what is considered to be – the main opposition party leader of Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes) Beji Caid al-Sebsi Thursday (15 August) in Paris. Though both parties have downplayed the importance of the meeting and tried to present it as “drinking a coffee together and getting familiar with each other”, the importance cant be denied. Ghannoushi has said on several previous occasions that he would not “deal with former regime remnants”, when asked about Call of Tunisia. Whereas Call of Tunisia is known to be from the beginning staunch anti-Nahda. As far as press releases concerned nothing has been agreed upon in that meeting. Although well-known Nidaa Tounes politician (and a former minister under one of Ben Ali’s governments) Lazhar Akrami confirmed rumours that Ennahda proposed al-Sebsi the presidency, which if true was not accepted.

Afterr Ennahda’s decision to participate in the national dialogue initiative led by the UGTT, it is now the opposition parties who will have to take the shot. It remains to be seen what their final response is and whether they will participate in it or not.

Tunisian media outlets: stage of fierce political battles

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From left to right: Ennahda president Ghannoushi, former Minister-President Jebali and Tunisian president Marzouki.

The media in Tunisia has been undergoing drastic changes since the country’s revolution in 2011. After having been strictly controlled by Ben Ali´s regime, nowadays many new media outlets have found their way to millions of Tunisian households.  The newfound media freedom has also turned Tunisian television into the main stage where fierce ideological battles are “fought”. Tunisian television is what I will focus on in this post, because it is (still) the most-used media in this country.

Taking a look at contemporary Tunisian media landscape, and more specifically television channels, it can is an evidence to its own pluralism. On privately-owned TV stations both government and opposition figures alike are ridiculed, something that was completely unthinkable before the revolution. Moreover, after the revolution television outlets have quickly been discovered to be an influential instrument in getting your political message into the household of millions of Tunisians. The few private owned tv channels that Tunisians were familiar with before the revolution were considered by some to be politically “leftist” and “elitist”. Unsatisfied with them their opponents have started their own tv channels. In practice this led to increasing “politicization” of the Tunisian media landscape. Tunisia has since its independence been a country that has been dominated by two secular-minded presidents and elite. After the revolution Ennahda won the elections found itself uncomfortable with what it considered to be “former regime remnants turning the media into a weapon against government policies”, and started to try and influence the existing media landscape. Just like many more politically affiliated and influential Tunisians did.

This has led among many other things to Ennahdha-affiliated businessmen having started their own private channels in trying to counter “leftist TV channels”. It is not hard to imagine that with increasing polarization television is used as an important propaganda tool.

So what are some well-known private TV channels? Who owns them? And what is their political affiliation? I will mention some of the most well-known (Arabic) Tunisian television channels and answer those questions. Where needed I will try to offer a better insight in what they actually broadcast and their importance related to recent or past political events in the country.

nabil karoui

1)      Nessma: owned by the influential businessman Nabil Karoui (see picture above). Nessma TV was one of the few private channels that were allowed to broadcast under Ben Ali’s rule. A strategy was deployed to allow some “privatization”, but making sure that only (loyal) associates were allowed to start a television channel. Nabil Karoui, owner and CEO, appeared more than once on his own TV channel calling the ousted president “our father” and the one “who brings justice”, among many other appraisals. Back then it only broadcasted programs and news related to sports, culture, music and fashion to a lesser extent. After the revolution he presented himself as a “victim of Ben Ali’s oppressive rule” and his tv-channel championed the revolution and its ideals. It shifted to political broadcasts, discussion programs and daily news. It caused controversy when it aired the Iranian film Persepolis, considered blasphemous by many Tunisians. It would later be convicted to paying a fine for “disrupting public order and violating morals” by airing the film. Since then his channel has sarcastically been called “Neqma” (meaning curse in Arabic) by more conservative Tunisians, a word-play on its actual name “Nessma”.

2)      Al-Hiwar (dialogue): owned by opposition activist and experienced journalist Tahar bin Hussain. Al-Hiwar is politically affiliated to the opposition and more specifically the Bourguibist and anti-Ennahda party Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes). The channel broadcasts news and offers discussion programs related to news and societal issues. After the second assassination of MP and opposition politician Mohammed al-Brahmi, Tahar bin Hussein encouraged Tunisians in his daily program to demonstrate against the Nahda-led government and demanded it to be replaced. Recently, he has been accused of calling “for the overthrow of the government” and has been called to appear before the investigative Court of First Instance. Especially after the last assassination and current crisis it is fair to say that his channel is staunchly anti-government, anti-Ennahda and was daily covering the anti-government demonstrations. By Ennahda supporters it has – after recent events in Egypt – been accused of “calling for a coup”.

3)      Ettounissiya Channel: owned by Sami el-Fehri, an associate of the former Ben Ali-Trabelsi ruling family. Already before the revolution he co-owned Cactus Productions Company with Belhassen Trabelsi, brother-in-law of former president Ben Ali. El-Fehri has since September 2012 been jailed accused of corruption charges and “misappropriating national television recourses” for his own (co-owned) Cactus Productions Company. After the revolution and coming into existence of Ettounissiya Channel it used to be Tunisia’s top television channel, until two months ago when it went off-air because of a disagreement with their production company and losing their frequency. It aired successful programs such as Labes (political program where the host invites in front of audience guests to discuss political actuality and culture), Andi mnqolek (the host mediates in front of an audience to solve family/marital problems and get people back together), and al-Masaa (a panel where guests with political backgrounds and artists are invited to discuss actuality). Although it is associated with the former regime because of the well-known journalists that are working for the channel, it has been trying to overcome that accusation by inviting politicians, analysts and guests from all ideological backgrounds.

4)      Hannibal TV: founded in 2005 by businessman Larbi Nasra. Back then it was the only private owned channel in Tunisia and broadcasted sports, culture, music and some religious programs to a lesser extent. After the revolution it was accused of “trying to spread disinformation in order to bring the country into chaos and hasten the return of Ben Ali”, although it was cleared of that accusation after some investigations. Nowadays it covers also politics in many of its programs.

5)      Al Moutawasset: launched after the revolution and owned by Ennahda affiliates. It started with broadcasting political programs and news. Although their main focus is still on covering political actuality and news it nowadays also airs films, soaps, religious programs and documentaries. It has good relations with Qatari news channel Al-Jazeera and some of Al Moutawasset’s employees have visited it’s headquarter in Doha (Qatar) for a training course.

6)      Zitouna TV: launched after the revolution and co-owned by Ennahda politician and former presidential advisor Lotfi Zitoun. It broadcasts mostly religious political discussion programs, and to a lesser extent culture and history. It is close to Ennahda and therefore pro-goverment. During the events in Egypt it dedicated most of it broadcasts coverling live Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations protesting against the coup of the Egyptian Army.

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7)      TNN: launched after the revolution and Ennahda affiliated it broadcasts political discussions, news, sports and some series. It has also interesting programs such as al-Qahwa (the coffee) where political or ideological rivals meet each other and while drinking a coffee they discuss politics.

8)      Al-Janoubia: launched after the revolution it is hard to guess its affiliation. It is compared to other previously mentioned television channels rather a low-budget TV channel that is less concerned with politics and more with trying to give its viewers an inside into the lives of ordinary Tunisians. Its reporters go often to rural Tunisia, or poor or working class neighborhoods, to show the lives of Tunisians who are daily struggling to make a living.  Though much less than other TV channels it does have some programs related to Tunisian politics as well as culture.

9)     Tounesna: launched after the revolution it broadcasts mainly programs about culture, society and fashion. In some of its programs covering societal issues it has chosen to touch upon culturally sensitive issues (such as children out of wedlock, prostitution, AIDS etc.) through interviewing Tunisians followed by a panel discussion.

Besides those previousy mentioned nine (private) TV channels there are many more of course. Before the revolution however there were only 2 private channels, Nessma and Hannibal TV. Apart from that there were – and still are – also two state TV channels. Leaving politics and ideological battles aside the newfound media freedom has obviously benefited one party the most: Tunisian journalists. Whereas before the revolution a journalist still studying at university would know that he or she would have approximately 95% chance of not finding a job, nowadays many journalists have much more chance of trying to find work at one of the many media outlets. Apart from that pluralism has entered the Tunisian media landscape. Tunisians with different political preferences can all find the TV channel they trust to get their news from.

A crucial moment for Tunisian democracy

I read on Al Jazeera English a good analysis about the current stand off in Tunisian politics between mainly Ennahda and the opposition about whether the current government should be replaced by an independent technocratic one or not. I will quote some parts of Yasmine Ryan’s article “Tunisia democracy faces crucial moment”, published 17 August on Al Jazeera’s English new website, and try to give a more in-depth insight into the current crisis that seems to become more dicisive in the success or failure of the Tunisian democratic transition period. Meaning, will Tunisia also follow Egypt’s path? Or will it be able to settle the crisis and continue – until now – to be an exception to Egypt and the other Arab countries that have known mere civil strife after their revolutions (such as Libya, Jemen and also the civil war in Syria).

In previous posts I have already written about what each political party proposes as a solution to the current crisismediation efforts of the powerful labour union (UGTT), and a comparison between Egypt and Tunisia and how the Egyptian conflict increases fears and distrust between different Tunisian political parties. On top of that the economy is quickly further deteriorating; Tunisia’s foreign and domestic long-term credit was downgraded on Friday due to increasing concerns about the political situation and security threats and “low confidence that the country will be able to respect its debt obligations”. The large Tunisian Industry, Trade and Handicrafts Union (known by its French acronym UTICA) and representatives of the private sector called for ending the political crisis as soon as possible, alarmed by the deteriorating state of the economy.

Some parts of the analysis on Al Jazeera about the current political crisis in Tunisia and Ennahda argument’s for not giving up their condition that their current Prime Minister should also head any future government:

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“Many members of the opposition are calling for Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh’s government to be dissolved and replaced by a “technocrat” government, arguing that this is necessary to see the country through its transition period….

Ennahdha, the governing party which shares ideological links with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has so far rejected the idea of a technocratic government, which it sees as an attack on its political legitimacy. On Saturday morning, the Islamist party began a political congress in Tunis, the capital, which is likely to run until late on Sunday…

Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahdha, has condemned those calling for a dissolution of the government as “anarchists” and “Marxists”…

There is a fear within Ennahdha that should they lose political power, there could well be a return to the kind of political repression the party faced under the previous regime. 

“The Egyptian situation is helping us to understand better that what is happening in Egypt is not separate,” Osama Al Saghir, a member of the Ennahdha party and the Constituent Assembly, told Al Jazeera in an interview.

“There is clearly a kind of project to get back to the old regime. This is what happened in Egypt, and they are trying to do the same in Tunisia.”

It is notable, however, that whilst some of the members boycotting the constituent assembly have supported the Egyptian military’s massacre of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters, the majority of political parties have explicitly condemned them, including Al Massar, Nidaa Tounes and Al Watad.

Ennahdha believes that a technocrat government, far from being politically neutral, is a thinly-veiled attempt by loyalists of the old regime to put their people back in power.

“What do you think it means to have a technocrat government? Who are the technocrats in Tunisia? When we say technocrats, we mean people who worked all these years with Ben Ali,” Al Saghir said.

“I think a technocrat government would be really dangerous for the country.””

Just like in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood, right from the moment Ennahda started governing (with CPR and Ettakatol) polarization increased by time between Ennahda and certain opposition parties (and figures), who were accussed by Nahda of being former regime sympathizers and/or remnants. The tension is also an ideological one; one between Islamists and secularists. Nevertheless it should be mentioned that Ennahda does govern with two secular parties and there also secularist parties and sympathizers that do no not believe in this traditional divide. After a second political assassination of a MP and opposition member turned the country into a political crisis recent events in Egypt have strengthened Ennahda in their fears in what they perceive to be “former regime remnants & anarchists” trying to stage a coup. This explains why Ennahda clings to what they perceive to be the legitimacy of the government, a government that was formed after constituent assembly elections. With “former regime remnants” among the opposition – thousands opposing the government have previously been demonstrating in Bardo square – Ennahda means Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes). The party was founded after the previous elections and admits itself to have (some) members among its ranks that used to be in Ben Ali’s RCD party and/or served as a minister under his rule. The party is staunchly anti-Nahda, opposes strongly the ideology of the “Ikhwaan” (Muslim Brotherhood), is considered to be Bourguibist in its outlook and is led by Beji Caid Sebsi. A 86-year old veteran politician who was a key figure in the early years of the Ben Ali regime, but served most of his long political career – among them as Interior Minister and ambassador in Western countries – under Tunisia’s charismatic but authoritarian first president, Habib Bourguiba. The “anarchists” among the opposition, an accusation Ennahda president Ghannoushi coined again some days ago, are the socialists (previously known as The Communist Worker’s party and now united in the Popular Front), led by Hama al-Hammami. Known for his strong opposition to the government of former president Ben Ali, and was therefore frequently imprisoned and tortured the old regime. As I wrote in a previous post, the enmity between socialists/communists and Islamists is an old one in the entire Arab world. Although less apparent than it once was.

The argument that Ennahda fears that a technocratic government means automatically to be “a former regime government” is kinda new to me. Before their argument’s (previous days and weeks) focused on the legitimacy of the government. A technocratic government and who will take part in it can be open to discussion, in that case it seems a rather weak argument. Moreoever because also Ennahda has dealt and included in the current government some politicians that were known to have worked with Ben Ali’s regime. On the other hand is can be said – in general – that their are many former regime remnants among people who could be asked to join a future technocratic government. The Ben Ali regime has ruled Tunisia for more than 20 years so many in the the country’s elite with political experience might have been involved with the previous regime. Nevertheless, who will join a technocratic government is a second step that is open to negotiations. Another fact is that there other also among the opposition calling for the government to be replaced parties that are vehemently opposed to former regime remnants. One of those parties is the socialist Popular Front, old arch enemies of Islamists, but who have also been strongly persectured by Ben Ali’s regime.

Ennahda supporters

Having explained Ennahda’s (self-proclaimed) reasons for not giving in to the opposition demands, an independent technocratic government that should govern the country until next’s elections, it is also important to understand Nahda’s supporters. Is Ennahda able to give in into the opposition’s demands without the risk of disenfranchising their own supporters? No, they are not. Not after the language they used to describe (parts, if not all) of the opposition that demand the current government to be replaced. Not after the events in Egypt and the polarizing effect it has on Tunisian politics. From the beginning on Ennahda described any attempt to replace the current government (including the Prime Minister) as an attack on the government’s legitimacy and democracy itself. The events in Egypt strengthen Ennahda and its supporters in their fear that their political rivals are trying to get them down by using the current crisis to “stage a coup besides of the legitimacy the government has thanks to democratic elections”. When rumors appeared that the president of Ennahda met (in secret) with 86-year old president of Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes) they were quick to clarify through a press release that it wasn’t true at all.

Some parts of the analysis on Al Jazeera about the current political crisis in Tunisia and the opposition’s arguments in demanding an independent technocratic government:

“Even for those Tunisians who have called on the armed forces to intervene in the same way that the Egyptian military stepped in to force President Mohammed Morsi out, Tunisia is a country where the military has traditionally abstained from political involvement, a role long held by the police instead.

Mongi Rahoui, head of the leftist Popular Front, the movement that both of the politicians assassinated this year belonged to, is amongst the members of the NCA boycotting the body and participating in a sit-in 

“We are not calling for anarchy, we are reacting to the fact that our party is in danger of terrorism and economic crisis,” he was quoted by the AFP news agency as saying on Friday, in response to Ghannouchi.

Tunisia’s powerful union, known as the UGTT by its French acronym, has played a crucial role in mediating the conflict, but is becoming increasingly frustrated with what it views as Ennahdha’s refusal to pay heed to widespread frustration over country’s economic and security situation…

On Friday, the union said it would no longer be playing the role of mediator as it is itself a political force with an agenda it wishes to push for. 

The UGTT’s Sami Tahria told the Tunisian national press agency on Friday that Ghannouchi was trying to win time.

The UGTT supports the calls for a non-political, technocrat government, but differs from the protesters at Bardo, the site of an ongoing sit-in, because it is not supporting an end to the efforts of the National Constituent Assembly to finalise the constitution and pave the way for elections by the end of the year.

..Yet many of those also calling for a non-political government, notably the UGTT, the Popular Front and several other political parties, do not want a return of the old regime any more than Ennahdha.

..It is notable, however, that whilst some of the members boycotting the constituent assembly have supported the Egyptian military’s massacre of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters, the majority of political parties have explicitly condemned them, including Al Massar, Nidaa Tounes and Al Watad.”

sebsi and ghannouchi

Although Egyptian events have a polarizing effect on Tunisian politics it is fortunate to see that many opposition parties condemned the crackdown of the Egyptian army on Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations. Despite of that fears have been increasing by events in Egypt, a look on facebook and pages affiliated to Ennahda or their activists say enough. Moreover, opposition activists (not politicians) do also seem to sympathize with the army in its crackdown on the demonstrations in Egypt. Video’s showing violence of “the Criminal Brotherhood” demonstrators are circulating widely and opposition’s facebook pages. It shows the deep divide that is present in Tunisia and could – if not solved – be a direct threat to the democratic transition if the crisis is not solved. Considering the problems with national security, fight against militants, poor state of the economy, polarizing effect of the events in Egypt and continuing political infighting, each day the crisis is not solved increases risking the democratic transition to fail.

The latest news last night was that Ennahda president Rashed al-Ghannoushi and Call of Tunisia president Beji Caid Sebsi had a meeting (see picture above; left Sebsi, right Ghannoushi). According to the news report they did not meet in Tunisia, but in Paris. Earlier this week Sebsi travelled indeed to France for several meetings, among them foreign officials.

A comparison: Tunisia, the next Egypt?

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Yesterday hundreds of people were killed when Egyptian security forces cleared two pro-Morsi sit-ins, ending their nearly seven-week-old protest that began after the army toppled former president Morsi on July 3. One should understand that Egypt has always been considered to be (culturally) the most important country in the Arab world, it is due to this importance that Arabs also know it as oum al-dunia (mother of the world). The events in Egypt have had a huge impact on Tunisian politics right from the moment the army stepped in to topple Muslim Brotherhood president Morsi. Yesterday, it did not take long before Tunisian political parties were quick to respond to the Egyptian events. Many of them were quick to point out that the Egyptian scenario is one that Tunisia should be avoided at all costs. Some warned (some) Tunisians in this regard, whereas others found it necessary to emphasize that Tunisia differs from Egypt. It is undeniably true – and widely recognized – that the Egyptian events have a big influence in increasing fear and distrust between pro-government and opposition supporters in Tunisia.

Post-revolution Tunisia & Egypt

So, in which way can the Tunisian political situation actually be compared to Egypt? And where does it differ, if so? A small introduction before starting with the comparison is needed to give a broader picture about the current political situation in both countries. The series of protests and demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa that commenced in 2010 has become known as the “Arab Spring” or “Arab Uprisings”. It was sparked by the first protests that occurred in Tunisia on 18 December 2010 in Sidi Bouzid, following Mohamed Bouazizi‘s self-immolation in protest of police corruption and ill treatment. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on 14 January 2011 following four weeks of massive protests, ending his 21-year presidency. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak resigned on 11 February 2011 after 18 days of massive protests, ending his 30-year presidency. After elections were held in both countries – the first ones that were widely considered to have been “transparent and free” – Ennahda (Islamist) became the biggest party in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Both countries have since then been led by a Ennahda-led government in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood-led government (and president) in Egypt.

Differences

[1] Government coalition & parliament:

After Tunisian elections in 2011 for a constituent assembly Ennahda turned out to be biggest party with 31% of the votes. The other 69% of votes went for more than 90% to non-Islamist parties (or independent candidates) who also won seats in parliament. After the elections Ennahda formed a coalition with two secular parties; CPR (center left) and Ettakatol (social democrats). Presidency was offered to CPR’s Moncef Marzouki, and President of Parliament to Ben Jaafar (Ettakatol). After the elections Ennahda has expressed repeatedly that the constitution should be written in the spirit of “national consensus” and should “represent all of Tunisian society”. Although its skeptics argue that Ennahda might interpret “all of Tunisian society” and “national consensus” differently to what is commonly understood of it. Nevertheless, the results of the Tunisian elections forced all parties in parliament – including Ennahda – to form alliances when writing the constitution in trying to get a majority to approve an article to be included in the constitution. This might be one explanation why the new Tunisian constitution, that is supposed to be almost finished now, took more than a year and a half to be written. In Egypt however, the Muslim Brotherhood coalition won more than 50% of the votes in parliamentary elections in 2011, with the Salafist party becoming second (25%). Parliament would for 75% be dominated by Islamists, and Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammed Morsi would a year later become president winning presidential elections with 51.7%. Contrary to Tunisia this meant in practice that the Muslim Brotherhood had just to agree with the Salafist party in parliament (together 75%) in writing and approving the constitution, and it would later pass a referendum with approximately 60% voting in favor. Although 33% of the eligible voters actually turned up.

[2] Army and its role in politics:

Mohammed Morsi, Hussein Tantawi

During the Tunisian revolution its (small) army stood at the side of the demonstrators. Well known is General Rachid Ammar, who refused to give orders to fire on demonstrators. After the revolution the Tunisian army has kept itself busy with national security. A reason for this is that in its history it has never been involved in politics, it is actually well-known that former president Ben Ali kept it small on purpose. After the revolution estimations indicate army personnel to be around 65.000. Equipment is considered to be old and “out of touch”. Almost all Tunisian political commentators agree on the fact that the army is not interested in becoming involved in politics nor capable of it. Decisive power to stage a coup as was done in Egypt is not present in Tunisia. Moreoever, due to increasing threats to national security and terrorism there is an urgent need to invest in the Tunisian army in order to increase border patrol and combating terrorism. The Egyptian army on the other hand has in modern-day history of Egypt always played an important role in its politics. Military rule has been more often a fact than an exception. It is considered to be the most advanced army of the Arab world nowadays and has been ruling Egypt for decades through a military dictatorship.

[3] Geopolitics:

Tunisia is an North African country with just over 11 million inhabitants, not sharing any important river nor is it geographically close to the Middle East. Egypt however is without doubt the cultural “heart” of the Arab world with more than 80 million people. It neighbors Israel, is next to – if not part of – the always turbulent Middle East, heads the Nile as the world’s most longest river in the world and connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea through the Suez canal, which is of utter importance in for example shipping 5.5% of the world’s oil daily. In short, there is absolutely no comparison between the importance of Tunisia and Egypt in terms of geopolitics. Another fact stemming from the difference between both countries regarding its importance in geopolitics is that Egypt, and its army, has always received billions from especially the United States, and to a somewhat lesser extent Saudi Arabia or the EU. As is well known aid is not for free, in almost all cases it is offered only if certain conditions are not. 

Similarities

Rached-Ghannouchi-leader-du-parti-tunisien-Ennahda

[1] Ruling party & decades of persecution:

Although Ennahda (led by Rashed al-Ghannoushi, picture above) and the Muslim Brotherhood are both Islamist in their approach to politics. Although they obviously have a lot in common they also differ nowadays. One such difference is the fact that Ennahda agreed (with 60% after having voted among its members) that Islamic law (sharia) did not have to be mentioned in the new Tunisian constitution, a decision that led to quick political consensus in Tunisia in maintaining article 1 of the ’57 constitution. The Muslim Brotherhood however explicitly mentioned that sharia should be mentioned in the Egyptian constitution as the main source of law, although unchanged from Egypt’s old constitution they later added definitions to limit “sharia principles” to Sunni Muslim jurisprudence. Both parties have however in common that they won elections in countries that had for decades been ruled by (secular) dictators. Moreover, both parties have (sometimes) been (severely) persecuted at the hands of previous dictators. After the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and fair elections, they finally had the chance to govern.

[2] Islamist vs secularist divide:

Tunisia, as well as Egypt, has after the revolution been increasingly polarized between Islamists and secularists. Although the divide is not new and actually rather historic, it seems to have paralyzed both countries the divide and polarization is rather destabilizing both countries.

[3] National security:

In both countries national security has since the revolution deteriorated. The state as well as security intelligence has been significantly weakened due to the revolution. With weapons coming in from Libya this offers (militant) groups a chance to arm themselves and in some cases openly threaten or attack state institutions.